Landmarks board to consider 1963 City Light building on Queen Anne

Futuristic design echoes World’s Fair aesthetic

In 1963, Seattle City Light built the Power Control Center, a modernist-style steel-reinforced concrete structure that has remained on Lower Queen Anne even as the neighborhood has changed.

But as new development gobbles up property, Nicole Demers-Changelo worries the oddly shaped relic could also be lost.

Demers-Changelo is an architect and transplant from New York, and has taken a liking to the former utility building.  It’s not sleek like the current modern architecture.  It’s more of a type, she said, a building that expresses the modern post-World War II ideal of showing its strength against the outside world.

It sits behind a fence at 157 Roy St.  The landscaping is overgrown and there’s no lighting to emphasize the dramatic form, Demers-Changelo said.  “I can see how people might bypass it.”

“But there is an elegance in the small scale of it,” she said, “and how it does float off of the ground (plane).”

She is co-vice president of Queen Anne Historical Society, which filed an application to nominate the structure as a city landmark.

Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board will consider the nomination at 3:30 p.m. tomorrow in Room L2-80 of City Hall at 600 Fourth Ave.  The application is under “Current Nominations.”

The building was designed by architect Harmon, Pray & Detrich, whose important commissions include King County Administration Building and Sieg Hall at the University of Washington, according to the application prepared by Michael J. Herschensohn, Ph.D., the historical society’s president.  He was assisted by Demers-Changelo and Leanne Olson of the society’s board.

Seattle City Light no longer uses the 12,122-square-foot facility.

Scott Thomsen, a spokesperson for City Light, recently said he had not known the historical society was seeking landmark status for the structure.  “When you look at it, it is a cool-looking building,” he said.

Thomsen said it sat empty for some time before environmental remediation was done and the city rented it in 2015 as a homeless shelter.  “We do not have plans, outside of its current use, for anything else,” he said.

On Monday, Thomsen said City Light has not taken a position on the landmark application.

The former Power Control Center is one block north of Seattle Center and across from the popular Metropolitan Market.  The one-story structure has two independent wings, notes Herschensohn, who is a former executive director of the Museum of History & Industry in Seattle.

The building started out as an octagon, with a large semicircular “pin board” diagram of the city’s electric system.  By 1985, City Light had moved its power control functions elsewhere, but added to the original western wing, converting it into an eight-sided polygon as part of making the building an Emergency Operations Center.

The adjacent six-sided office portion is cantilevered over eight concrete pilotis separating parking spaces below, according to the application.

Herschensohn writes, “The creative and unusual pairing of eight and six-sided forms is a noteworthy feature of the Power Control Center, which is not only an exceptional example of the modern movement, but also of the unique blend of European and American design traditions that flows from Louis Sullivan to Frank Lloyd Wright and which is clearly seen in the work of Bruce Goff such as the Japanese Pavilion at LACMA and other Southern California mid-century architects.”

The building’s stark precast concrete panels and octagonal form echo futuristic designs of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, he writes.

That austere form has generated an urban myth that the building was constructed as a bomb shelter to protect City Light workers from a nuclear disaster, but the application notes that neither architectural drawings nor City Light literature mentions this.

Leanne Olson said the structure was pretty radical for its time, with a space age feel, but it was intended to be utilitarian.  City Light “could have thrown up a box — but they didn’t,” she said.

Olson said the building retains its architectural integrity.  “The addition was so sympathetic that a lot of us didn’t realize it had been added onto until we started doing the research,” she said.

Lower Queen Anne has a mix of architectural styles, with low-rise brick apartments from the 1920s and 1930s, Craftsman bungalows converted to apartments, mid-century-modern structures and modern townhouses.  Mixed-use multifamily buildings are being constructed on infill sites in the neighborhood, which is now home to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and in 2019 will feel the effects of Expedia moving its headquarters to the nearby waterfront.

Demers-Changelo moved to Seattle in 2012.  She now works in real estate, selling houses and condos as well as lots for redevelopment.  Each year, she organizes a tour of modern architecture on Queen Anne, and has championed the effort to get landmark status for the Power Control Center.

She said new development in South Lake Union is “marching on over” to Lower Queen Anne, so people should consider which buildings to preserve.

“We are at a point in modern architecture where we have to decide what’s worth keeping,” she said.

By Lynn Porter, Journal Staff Reporter
Lynn Porter can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.
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